Harry Edmund Martinson Biography


(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Harry Edmund Martinson was born on May 6, 1904, in Jämshög in the southeastern province of Blekinge, Sweden. His father, a captain in the merchant marines and later an unsuccessful businessman, died when Martinson was five. One year later, his mother emigrated to the United States, leaving her seven children to be cared for by the local parish. As a child, Martinson escaped from harsh reality into nature and into a fantasy world nourished by his reading (in particular the works of Jack London), and he dreamed of going to sea. He spent two years as a vagabond throughout Sweden and Norway before going to sea as a stoker and deckhand. He spent the next six years on fourteen different vessels, with extended periods in India and South America, before he finally returned to Sweden, having contracted tuberculosis.

The year 1929 proved to be a turning point in Martinson’s life. He made his literary debut and also married the writer Moa Martinson, beginning a stimulating partnership which lasted until 1940. During the early 1930’s, Martinson was tempted to pursue a career as a professional artist. His favorite subjects were factory workers, the jungle, and underwater scenes executed in a colorful and naïve style. In August, 1934, he participated in the Soviet Writers’ Congress in Moscow, an experience which disillusioned the former Communist sympathizer. The outbreak of World War II was seen by him as the result of the “civilization of violence.” In 1939, after Finland was attacked by the Soviet Union, Martinson joined the Finnish side as a volunteer. He wrote a book about his experiences, partly a glorification of rural Finland and its deep-rooted traditions as well as the country’s courageous battle against the war machine from the east, partly direct reportage from the front, the “unequivocal idiot-roaring grenade reality.” In 1942, Martinson married Ingrid Lindcrantz and settled in Stockholm, where he died on February 11, 1978.


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Harry Edmund Martinson (MAHR-teen-sawn) was born on May 6, 1904, in Jämshög, Sweden, the son of Martin and Betty Olofsson. His father, a former seaman who was habitually drunk and often violent, died of tuberculosis when Harry was six. Harry’s mother then fled to the United States, leaving six of her seven children behind. Harry never saw her again. The children were sent to various farms as unpaid workers. After running away from one farm after another, Harry was assigned to an old-age home. The affection of the female superintendent there, along with a teacher’s encouragement, enabled Harry to survive until, at sixteen, he joined the crew of a seagoing schooner. His eight years at sea would provide the material for two of his prose works.

After a bout with tuberculosis, Martinson returned to Sweden, where he led a hand-to-mouth existence, trying to peddle his poems to magazine editors. In 1929, his luck changed. His poems were included in a popular collection; his first book, Spökskepp, was published; and he married the novelist Moa Swartz. Their eleven-year relationship would be stormy but intellectually challenging.

Like his fellow primitivists, Martinson valued instinct, inspiration, energy, and freedom, but because of his class consciousness and his passion for social justice, he was classified as a proletarian writer. Martinson attended the All-Russia Congress of Writers in 1934 and left horrified by what he had seen: a...

(The entire section is 595 words.)